Water Not Impossible: Dean Kamen Fights a Goliath Water Crisis With ‘Slingshot’

According to Kamen, the Slingshot device is capable of converting “all the water in the rough rude sea” (Richard II) into safe, drinking water by means of a Stirling engine-powered vapor compression distillation process, using no filters, using cow dung as fuel.
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According to Kamen, the Slingshot device is capable of converting “all the water in the rough rude sea” (Richard II) into safe, drinking water by means of a Stirling engine-powered vapor compression distillation process, using no filters, using cow dung as fuel.

At some time or other, every human being collides with the existential crossroads of realizing that “I, to the world, am like a drop of water,” as William Shakespeare scrawled in Comedy of Errors, and forging a course of action

After well-decorated decades of directing critically-heralded stage shows and live events, including an all-star Stephen Sondheim birthday tribute at the Hollywood Bowl, feature films, and episodic television (Mad About You to Everybody Loves Raymond), as well as theatrical performances of The Bard himself, Paul Lazarus knew he wanted to do more – maybe even, in his own small way, help to change the world. Eight years ago, he asked family friend and occasional collaborator Dean Kamen, the 63-year old inventor and entrepreneur behind the Segway, about making a feature-length documentary chronicling the 2013 Global Humanitarian Award winner’s epic, largely self-funded efforts to solve the global water crisis with a device called Slingshot. The film, completed one year ago and touring the country for live events (with formal distribution imminent), has already crowded Lazarus’ mantel with awards from 15 different festivals, and reveals the marvelously witty and eccentric Kamen’s tenacious development of Slingshot – its name cribbed from the weapon Biblical David used to slay the behemoth Goliath. According to Kamen, the device is capable of converting “all the water in the rough rude sea” (Richard II) into safe, drinking water by means of a Stirling engine-powered vapor compression distillation process, using no filters, using cow dung as fuel. More than a decade ago, Time Magazine dubbed Kamen’s innovation one of the “coolest inventions of 2003.” So confident in his invention is Kamen that, onstage at a high-profile tech conference in 2004, he famously filtered his own urine through the Slingshot, then pounded the beverage with a grin. Kamen is aiming for mass production of the globally-tested units in the very near future, each one capable of producing some 250-gallons a day, a bountiful supply for 100 people. On a brief break from touring Slingshot, Lazarus shares his voyage of discovery in the world of water.

How did you come to the idea of making a feature film about Dean Kamen’s efforts to solve the global water crisis?

I’ve done short pieces, promo films and things, for Dean, who was a friend of my father’s, for 20 years or so. In 2006, Dean told me about his work on water and I thought that was potentially one of the most challenging, important things he would do with his storied career. I asked him if we might turn a camera on how he's developing the project. I thought it would be interesting for once to just track a story of a big technological innovation relatively early on. Luckily, he agreed. The truth is: I had no idea what I was getting into! (Laughs)

What do you mean?

Dean is very much about looking at old problems in new ways. He is incapable of solving problems in a traditional manner. That’s an incredible thing for everyone to learn, I think, though the lessons are not always simple. Luckily, due to my long association with him, there was a lot of built-in trust and an ability to get more personal, a little deeper, than I think other filmmakers have gotten.

The facts and figures about the global water crisis are truly horrifying – more than one-billion people without access to clean water, more than 1,000 people (most of them children) dying each day because of that. Tell me about your process of awakening to this information while making the film. 

The pat answer would be that I became aware of this crisis in the world and wanted to help do something about it. Dean would never give you that answer, though. He was working on kidney dialysis, retooling an entire industry devoted to people with kidney failure. He solved that with a number of groundbreaking inventions, and those devices allowed those suffering with kidney disease to stay home and do their filtrations and their dialysis sessions in the comforts of their own beds. He took a washing machine-sized unit and turned it into something the size of a clock radio. The thing is: the device (called Home Choice) takes a lot of water. So Dean, being who he is, saw that his invention was powerful enough to take tap water and purify it enough to be used in dialysis, and his line of thought was, “Why am I devoting all of my energy to people who have kidney failure when there are a billion people in the world without clean water?”

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So your personal awakening to this subject came through Dean? 

Yes. My own awareness of the water crisis really came from making this film. When Dean said yes to making the film, I did what any good filmmaker would do: I started educating myself. I was, frankly, really naïve at the start of this film, and now I want the rest of the world to know what I know. Most of us have no idea what’s going on with water, especially in the West. There is a burden, of course, to knowing “too much,” which is that this problem is serious and its ubiquitous and it needs to be addressed. Like, now. I’m afraid for the world my 8-year old daughter’s going to inherit. I’ve been around the world now. I’ve seen children her age who have never seen running water in their lives.

How does Slingshot compare with some of the other incredible inventions that are tackling the same problem in the world? 

That’s a really good question. One thing I like to say, because the water crisis is so important to me, is that there are numerous good and viable solutions to the world’s water crisis, from The Straw to Procter & Gamble’s purification packets, all kinds of things. Slingshot does really, really well in remote access situations where the water is filthy or contaminated. With this machine, a hundred people’s needs can be met in a day. The crazy thing about water is there’s a lot of water on this planet; we just can’t drink most of it. Yet.

How does the Slingshot work? 

It's a very simple process on a lot of levels. Simple distillation. You super-heat any kind of liquid and, through that process, all the crap falls out and then the vapor is reconstituted as pure water. It’s really a silver bullet because nothing gets through that process – except the water. It’s also important to note that the long-term costs of Slingshot are a lot more reasonable than a lot of other water solutions. Because it doesn’t matter how contaminated the water is before it goes through the Slingshot and because we know it’s completely effective in ridding those toxins after going through the process, you don’t need scientists on how to test the water before or after. Virtually every other method requires a lot of scientific activity before and after. That’s challenging because most of these regions don’t have their own qualified scientists, and taking scientists all over the world is a fairly cost-prohibitive thing to do.

How many people have benefitted from Slingshot to date?

Like any disruptive new thing, it’s not enough. It’s not enough yet. It's like saying, “How many people have laptops?” right after Steve Jobs invented them. There are a few machines in Ghana, a few machines in Paraguay, and a few machines elsewhere in the world. Not enough. That's something that greatly saddens me, but something this disruptive and big doesn't just roll out instantly. This is something Dean and I are keenly aware of. There’s a moment in the film where he’s sitting in his home, having invented one of the great technological things of our time, maybe all time, and he says, “It’s really occurring to me that my technology is not out there yet. Every year that it’s not, that’s another couple million people dying. We’ve got to get moving.” I think we shot that in 2007. That’s a lot of people.

What are the primary obstacles to bringing this to market? 

There huge political forces that are able to prevent these things from happening. They're sort of obvious, but they're strong. Without going too deeply into that, I think more to the point is there are all of these cell phones in Africa and India, millions upon millions of cell phones, and people have communication and communication leads to awareness, global change, things like that. Well, how did they get to having 400-million cell phones in Africa alone? We brought them from the West. Cell phones are something Western consumers devour, so the cost curve moved quickly and they became so cheap to make you could practically give them away. The problem with water is: the Western world doesn’t think it has this problem, so we’re not buying 400-million Slingshots and driving down the costs of manufacturing them. This is probably the first technology that might actually grow in the undeveloped world and come back to the developed world afterwards. It's the opposite of how things usually happen in the world.

So what needs to change? 

When the price of a gallon of water starts being real in the West, then things are going to change.

What is the cost of a Slingshot that serves 100 people with enough water for one day over the course of many years?

It’s just a question of how many of them are being made, which is the question with every technology and product. The first one cost millions. Then the cost came down to hundreds of thousands. The one’s today are, I can safely say, in the $30,000-$40,000 range. It’s dropping steadily now that hundreds of them are being made, and Dean is determined to get them into the range of $3,000-$4,000. But when you think about the value of 100 lives, I’m not really sure what cost ratio has to do with things anymore, you know.

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What would you like people to take from the film? 

In our editing suite, we have a little card above our monitors that says, “Change peoples’ attitudes about water.” That’s the mission. There’s a moment in the film where show a golf course being watered. There’s a shot of a water park where a rollercoaster’s being tossed down a slide and splashed into water. There’s a shot of the Bellagio fountains. They are intended to make people queasy. We don’t even question these things in our lives, but people are, literally, dying without access to water we use for amusement.

How can people see the film?

We’ve been touring the country with the film, and we’re working on distribution. We’re a small independent film and there are not a lot of people racing to distribute a film about water problems. (Laughs) But if you go to www.slingshotdoc.com and register, that will keep people filled in on where we’ll be and how to see the film. By May, we should have things set up where people can see it however they’re most comfortable, Netflix, iTunes, all of that. In a lot of ways, that might be more ideal. Instead of spending $12 on a ticket and $10 on a tub of popcorn, maybe they can figure out a way to help solve the water crisis in the world.